It is no surprise that a culture with a low view of theology would in turn have a low ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). The theos, after all, is rather tightly bound together with the ekklésia. Dismiss one and you will have a hard time not dismissing the other. If you have little interest in studying the person and work of the Groom, you will likely have little interest in studying, much less serving His bride. You need not study the Groom long to learn that He commands us to love His beloved.
Nathan Hatch proposed an interesting perspective on how, at least in America, we have come to such a low view of the church in his landmark work The Democratization of American Christianity. He observed a correlation between the spread of America into the Western frontier and the spread and growth of the church. In each instance, it seemed what was called for was a pioneering spirit and a willingness to embrace the practical, to leave aside niceties that had little to do with survival. As our forefathers moved west seeking more elbow room, the church likewise sought more elbow room. Unwilling to be bound by the traditions of Puritan New England, they, in and through the Great Awakening, took on new methods, new convictions, new liberties.
The literary heroes of the age—Natty Bumppo, Daniel Boone, even Huck Finn—embraced an ethic built on individual effort, courage, and drive, thereby shaping how we understand ourselves not just in the face of the Western wilderness, but in the spiritual wilderness. Lone wolves ceased to be something to fear and became something to aspire to. We began to forget that we are a we.
The Romantic spirit came across the pond and fit in quite well. Romanticism isn’t a worldview built on candlelit dinners or walks on the beach, but on the premise that institutions are the root of all evil, that man in his natural state is pure and clean. The telos (goal) of Romanticism is authenticity, spontaneity. I become what I am meant to be when I am most free of any restraints, when my emotions are my guiding star. I am what I feel. And I am an island.
The Bible, on the other hand, while profoundly concerned with the individual—the individual soul, the soul made right with God—never leaves us alone. Indeed, it warns us regularly of the danger of being a lone ranger. We have been brought into the assembly. We are a part of the body. We are, together, the bride of Jesus Christ. It is not good that man should be alone. We are a corpus, a body, a part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Our fathers in the faith understood this, and we have sought to forget. They understood that when they confessed together the Apostles’ Creed, they were doing something more than giving a personal confession of faith. They understood even that their local body was doing more than describing the bounds of its own confession.They understood that they were confessing the faith once for all given to the church, that they were standing in a stream that began well before them and that would continue long after them. When they sang the Psalms, they understood that they were doing more than merely singing what was safe, because it came from the Holy Spirit. Rather, they grasped that they were retelling their own family stories, indeed, that the whole of the Bible isn’t others’ history from which we might draw moral lessons, but rather it is our history from which we should draw our identity.
In like manner, our fathers understood that the Christian life is so much bigger than merely waiting for personal rescue. Their goal was not simply to protect and guard their own souls, but to hold fast to the faith, to tell their children and their children’s children of the great works of God in space and time.
In our day, we may know our Father in heaven, but we have forgotten our mother, the church.
Our Lord Jesus tells each of us that we must seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness. That kingdom is bigger than just me, bigger than just you. It is us, along with our fathers, our children, and as many as are afar off. It includes those whose musical tastes annoy us, whose weak theology frustrates us, whose sins shame us. We are called not just to identify with all those with whom we are in union, but to seek their good, to pursue their blessing. We are called to love them just as the One who has bound us together loves them. That doesn’t mean we’ll never disagree—it means we will disagree. Because that’s what fallen people who love each other do. That is one way that we are able to serve each other.
We have, each of us and all of us, been given the righteousness of Christ. Not one of us has earned it. Not one of us can keep it on his own. But we all together have been purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ. As such, our heavenly Father doesn’t just love me, but He loves you and every one of us even as He loves His only begotten Son. We have together the same Father. We have Him because we have together the same elder brother. And both of them call on us to love our common mother, blemishes and all, because she gave birth to us and because she nurtures us, cherishes us.
Our Father is perfect. Our mother is most assuredly not. But just as the Spirit is perfecting us, so is He perfecting our mother. Our calling is to love her, to honor her, to submit to her, that it might go well with us in the land He has given us.